Gazing upstream at wondrous color

Gazing upstream at wondrous color

Shane Carruth’s latest film tests expectations

By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Director Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in “Upstream Color”; Rating: Not Rated Grade: A

At this year’s San Francisco Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh delivered an intriguing address on the state of the film industry. What made it so fascinating may, in part, have been the timing. Soderbergh is on what amounts to a farewell tour, having announced his retirement from feature filmmaking. He has expressed a desire to pursue other interests – painting, writing and theater – but at the heart of things is the sense that Soderbergh is fed up with playing the game that one has to play in order to get movies made.

He kicked things off by defining the difference between movies and cinema. “A movie,” he said, “is something you see” whereas “cinema is something that is made.” The making focuses on a “specificity of vision” that anchors the creative process. There isn’t necessarily a negative connotation inherent in the idea of “movies.” What concerns Soderbergh is the industry’s overwhelming reliance on developing a matrix that skews more towards “movies” over “cinema.” He’s merely arguing for balance – much needed in this case.

In the middle of his address, Soderbergh offered a personal endorsement for a cadre of filmmakers – Amy Seimetz, Barry Jenkins and Shane Carruth – who, if he, in an ideal world, had half a billion dollars and the ability to greenlight projects, would be drafted – with a three-picture deal – to follow their muses. Likely, he sees a bit of himself in them, and he’s appreciating the reality that allowed him to eventually move back and forth between the indie and studio worlds. These three folks currently operate in the cinematic, but Soderbergh dreams, for them, of the “what if,” the “what might be.”

“Upstream Color,” the new film from Carruth, is now available on video on demand (VOD) and DVD, having burst out on the festival scene earlier this year (it was a favorite at Sundance). Like “Primer,” his debut, “Upstream Color” bends minds and warps sensibilities to such an extent that multiple viewings and heated post-screening discussions are mandatory to crack the coded frames. It is a love story, featuring Carruth and Seimetz in the lead roles, but filtered through the refracted prism of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” with light from Brit Marling’s speculative lamp on a sumptuous backdrop courtesy of Terrence Malick.

Too much, right?

Well, “Upstream Color” demands repeat immersion; its narrative opens up and it provides a key that unlocks a secret door in the minds of the audience as well. Is it a date movie? Why, yes it is, but for the kind of date that never ends. You and your companion may find yourselves linked by a psychic bond on an astral plane, a dreamscape where only the two of you exist. We talk about wanting/desiring intimacy, but this might be far more than we could ever imagine.

The film is about an organism – a worm capable of generating a toxin that, once ingested, creates a link between others that can even cross species. The science embedded in the fiction is epic in scale and scope, but Carruth’s execution is at once lyric and plainly rooted in familiar elements of the every day like pig farms and identity theft.

Likely, no other film this year will feature a thief with a carefully obscured face who explains, “I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.”

That sounds crazy, surreal and more than a little daunting – and it is. But it also provides an antidote to the blockbusting fare that, over time, comes to feel like the kind of fast-food diet that could wipe us out creatively far too soon. Soderbergh is right; we need some cinema to keep us healthy and whole.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at

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